Wednesday 1 December 2021

Decking the halls

It may not have escaped your notice that Christmas decorations are out in force. In shops and schools, civic buildings and the high streets, trees and lights are bringing a cheery sparkle to these early nights. And it only the start of December.

In our house, growing up, there was always a certain excitement about the decorations being excavated from the loft yet again. Some were gaudy and brightly painted, others, made of glass, almost as thin as the tissue paper that wrapped them, had cherished stories of which grandparent had owned them, and still there were new purchases, adding to the hotchpotch collection. Advent has only begun, and trees perhaps shouldn’t really be appearing just yet — Christmas Eve is time enough — but the decorations should be a salient reminder to us rather than a cause of horror or stress.

The 17th century Venerable Fr Giambattista Prever of the Turin Oratory was noted for his outstanding growth in the virtues, for his gentle and charitable guidance of souls in the confessional and for his zeal in getting them into the box in the first place. But he was also notable for his creative ingenuity. “In the church too, which is the material, as souls are the spiritual temples of God, Father Prever exercised the zeal of his ingenious and ardent charity,” writes his biographer. He had an incredible desire to make the church beautiful, decorating it for feasts and celebrations with great care and, we are told, great taste. “Such was the perfection of his work and the beauty of the designs, that all were in astonishment, especially as a pair of scissors and a penknife were his sole instrument.” Sadly, no illustrations of his decorations are provided by the biographer.

For Fr Prever, the decorations he worked so hard to install were to attract the faithful to the feast, and were a gesture of devotion, making all beautiful to welcome the Lord who becomes present among us on the altar. They were expressions of that Oratorian conviction that beauty in art reflects the beauty that is in God and speaks deeply to our souls.

But the soul is the spiritual, where the church is the material temple of God. As we think about turning our mind to the decorations in our own home for the approaching feast of Christmas, as Advent has begun we ought to think about those spiritual temples of God which are our own, and how we might make them ready for the feast, to renew in them the welcome we have for our Lord by the beauty that is in them. For Fr Prever, and for us, Confession and a renewed zeal to avoid sin and practice the virtues must surely come first. The means are very simple — if Fr Prever managed so much with a pair of scissors and penknife, what might we allow God’s grace to do in us?

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